Pay-Per-View Recruiting: Looking at the cost of coach’s packets – October 2006

Okay, I’m not too proud to admit it: when the topic of coach’s packets was raised, I was stumped. Literally. Coaches had to pay to attend recruiting events? Can it be true that this only happens in basketball? And why can no one explain how this came to be? And I certainly couldn’t comprehend what appeared to be ridiculously high entrance fees. So I went straight to the source.

So What’s a Good Price?
Well, that’s sort of like asking how much does a pair of pants cost — it depends.

When contacting all the NCAA Certified Tournaments organizers, I found prices ranging from $5 to $685, with the average resting somewhere between $125 and $300. At first glance, the cost variances seems nonsensical, especially considering the basic uniformity of the packet’s contents: a schedule of the games along with a player’s information (height, school, position, address, phone number), and AAU coaches information.

Mix in a coach’s concerns about missing or inaccurate information that can lead to wasted time or NCAA violations; events requiring accompanying assistants to purchase an additional packet at full price; the Groundhog Day question of why they have to buy the same information over and over again; and finally, add in the disconcerting feeling that someone is getting rich off of all this, and one can understand why the end of July can become a college coach’s “season of discontent.”

And don’t think that it’s only the coaches who are upset. There are operators out there who feel they’re offering an excellent product at an honest and fair price, while “pretenders” (and, at times, competitors) are giving them a black eye. In one email an organizer demanded, “Quote me – ‘We cannot believe how some event operators are allowed to steal in such a manner from college coaches! Women’s event operators that charge $300 or more for a coaching packet for a single tourney should be immediately handcuffed and taken to jail!'”

Number Crunching
Now, before any of you coaches get any crazy ideas, I took a closer look the costs the price of a packet might be covering. Event organization is a business, every business has expenses, and they need to break even or they won’t be around long. So humor me as I sketch out a “mythical” event’s budget lines. There are too many mitigating factors to be named, but hopefully this will help identify the “hidden costs” coaches might not be aware of, as well as suggest some of the questions you might ask when assessing if a tournament packet is fairly priced.

1. The Packet: Beyond the basic, and not insignificant, cost of the production (photocopying, binding, design of special add-ins, shipping), it’s important to take into account the time and energy involved in the gathering of all the information. Someone is handling team registrations, chasing after incompletes, and updating the information. (And if they are not, they should be reported to the NCAA so they don’t get recertified next season).

One organizer put the raw cost of producing a packet at $25 each. Another offered a dollar-per-team formula while a third suggested $10-$15 a team. Packets can be produced in two weeks to four weeks or, depending on the registration process, drag on for months. And we haven’t even started addressing the added costs for those organizers who’ve introduced high-tech support like PDA downloads, information-rich websites and daily grid-sheets….

2. Referees: A relatively simple math problem: two or three refs (at $40-$60 each) for every game of the tournament.

3. Clock and Book: Another numbers game. Some tournaments use volunteers, some pay because, as Brandon Clay of Peach State Basketball has discovered, “It can get kind of messy.” Think $25 per person per game.

4. Athletic Trainers: The number and ease of availability of trainers is a concern to both coaches and operators. Of course, every additional trainer adds extra cost, which, of course, needs to be passed on to someone. $20/hr.

5. Event Staffing & Supplies: Again, it depends if the staff is paid, volunteer, or a mixture of both. How many of them are there and are any full-time?

6. The Venues: If you’ve ever had to rent a gym, you know what the costs can be. If you haven’t recently, simply ask about your institution’s rates. Clearly, price will reflect the location (D.C. is different than, say, Duluth), as well as the quality of the venue. (Is it old, fully equipped, air-conditioned?)

7. Insurance: It should come as no surprise to anyone that insurance is a major cost. “It used to be $2,000,” recalled Mike T. White, whose company oversees, amongst other tournaments, the Deep South Classic and Fall Finish. “The insurance factor has doubled in the last twelve months, due to some of the high school boys that have passed away on the courts recently. So, just to have insurance,” he explained, “you’re talking $12-$18,000 for a tournament, if you have more than 100 teams.”

The final ingredient is all this involves the intangibles of the event: Is it organized and professionally run? Do the games start in a timely manner? Are the game officials always ready and accounted for? Are the on-site needs of the coaches met? Was the information presented in a timely and correct way? Are the directions to each site accurate? Were there hi-tech perks and useful bonuses in the packets?

If the answers are yes, go back to the pants you’re looking to purchase: Are you willing to pay more for quality work?

After Adding and Subtracting, Look for the Positive
Once you’ve gotten a (very) rough total cost of a tournament, balance it against the three revenue streams: packets, daily admission, and team registration. Which of those parties should bear the greater burden of the costs is both a business and philosophical decision. “If we get our money from gate and the college packets,” said Chris Mennig of Blue Star Basketball/USJN, “if we do our job, then we’ll make money at a fair rate.” For coaches concerned about gouging, Mennig urged them to look not only at the packet price, “but look at what the application fee is for these teams. That shows you the mind-set of these guys that are running these events. If you’re pulling in a $300 profit, and you’re taking it from the kids, I think that’s wrong.”

After all the numbers are in, the results can be somewhat underwhelming, which is why some organizers see the tournaments as a side-bar to their main source of income: camps, training, or running travel teams, to name a few. A well-attended, high-quality, professionally run tournament might end up being more of a marketing tool than an effective moneymaking enterprise. White used a recent a six-day event as an example: “I probably took in $220,000 total. My expenses were like $150,000. I made $70,000 off of running four major events,” he noted, “and that was twelve months work. And I’ve got [a staff] salary per month of $20,000. Wow,” he marveled self-deprecatingly, “I covered three-and-a-half months of salary. I did a great job. Any CEO would have fired me by now,” he laughed.

The Footwear Factor: Hidden Profit?
It’s generally accepted by most coaches (and outsiders) that any event operator associated with a shoe company must be getting the big bucks. Not so fast, said Christine Lai of National Basketball. “I wish I was making tons of money,” she explained with a smile. “Nike sponsorship, in terms of our tournament, [means] that we’re able to use their name, so we can say we have ‘Nike Tournament Champions.'” In addition, Nike provides the apparel and, said Lai, “that’s where we make the money. They would be giving us x-number of sweatshirts and t-shirts, and then we’re able to put our logo on and sell it to the girls at less than retail.”

“The bottom line is no woman sells shoes,” added Peach State’s Clay. “So there’s not going to be a situation where Nike or Adidas or Reebok or And1 put a five- to six-digit check in anybody’s pocket just for endorsing the brand. The endorsements on the girl’s side really involve t-shirts and banners. Maybe your uniforms if you have a travel team.” “I would love [the tournaments] to be free,” added White, whose marketing consulting fee from Adidas gets funneled into his camps. “If somebody could give me 25 corporations willing to invest in girl’s basketball, where I could make things a little cheaper, I’d be glad to do it. But there’s not 25 corporations willing.”

Sliding Scales and Budget Crunches
If we accept the cost of running a tournament and the subsequent price of the packets as “hard”, there is no doubt many coaches find themselves treading a fine ethical line. (I say “many” because, while I’d never be so bold as to claim the upper-echelon of women’s basketball doesn’t deal with budget issues, as they say in New York, “Oiy, I should have such problems!”).

For the Division 1 mid-majors, Division 2 and 3 schools – the majority of coaches, mind you – the cost of packets can be prohibitive – both in expanding their recruiting pool and keeping tabs (or babysitting) active prospects. It has not gone unnoticed that some coaches will purchase a general admission ticket, borrow the packet of someone who’s purchased it, and go off and photo copy it.

To be honest, the event operator’s reactions to those coaches ranged from sympathetic to profoundly insulted. That being said, they were all cognizant of the budget realities of coaches and seemed willing to listen and negotiate. And, while these examples may not hold true for all organizations, they do reflect a diversity of flexibility. Lai, for instance, only charges assistants admission and her packets include “tear-outs” for them to use. Mennig has reinstituted Division 2 and 3 rates for all their events because he just “wants to get them into the building.” Why? “Because the reality is that there are more of these kids that are that level than there are of that upper Division 1 level. They’re better served,” he explained. “If a kid only had three schools to look at before they came to our event, and then they’ve got eight or nine? The chances of them finding what’s really the best fit for them is greater. To me, that’s why I’m doing this.”

When faced with coaches at the tail end of their budget, Sam Lee of MidSummer Nights’ Madness has, at times, simply chosen to give away the coaches packets — especially if the coach has attended several of his tournaments. (Which, actually, may be one of the reasons why the coaching grapevine spreads news of different coaches paying different amounts.) “Why in the hell wouldn’t I give it to them?” he asked. “I benefit the kid by doing it. That’s part of my fiduciary responsibility: to promote young kids playing basketball.” In fact, he’d rather the NCAA be responsible for all the athlete and team information. “They’re collecting the data,” (teams have to register with the NCAA) “why don’t the just give it to their membership? They’re paying huge fees. And for the non-NCAA members, work out an equitable fee.”

“Doctor, It Hurts When I Do This…”
“Well,” answers the doctor in this ancient joke, “then don’t do it.”

Bill McDonough of Blue Chip basketball offers a similar remedy to coaches who want action taken against operators they feel are over-charging. “There really is not a way that the NCAA or the WBCA can legislate what the package can be sold for,” says McDonough. “The only way to stop it is just like you and I do if we don’t like a certain kind of frozen peas: we don’t buy them anymore. If they did that, it would all get back to normal. And I stress that all the time.”

“I think that the coaches need to band together and start to really look seriously at whether we want to attend certain events at the price they are charging us right now,” echoed Notre Dame’s Muffet McGraw. But she, as so many coaches know, understands the need for some solidarity amongst coaches before they attempt something like that. “The last thing you want to say,” admitted Joe Logan of Loyola, “is ‘I didn’t go to a tournament and I really made a point. But someone else in my conference got the kid.'”

“I think the real hammer is the WBCA,” added Lee. “They say, ‘Look, we’re going to recommend to our membership that they don’t go to this tournament because 1) They’re over-charging and 2) We don’t see that there’s any concern for the student-athletes.’ And that’s how you get it down.”

End Notes
While speaking with event organizers, I was intrigued by how often their passions and concerns kept pulling us off track. Mike T. White, for instance, not unaware of the mutterings and grumblings amongst the coaching ranks, was somewhat nonplussed we were actually discussing the issue. “Why aren’t we talking about having more women on staff? Isn’t anyone worried about that?” he demanded. “My priorities aren’t correct? Where are their priorities to help women’s basketball? Help future women leaders of America? You can’t do it when they can’t find a job.”

It was conversations like this that kept me having to remind myself this article was not about:

*Whether shoe companies are exerting undue influence
*The influx of opportunistic organizers
*Asking if kids are playing too many games
*Wondering if the obsession with playing games is killing development of fundamentals
*Debating if economics are pricing out players from economically- challenged areas
*Wondering if club coaches are selling parents a “bill of goods,” simply so they can say their team went to a “big event”

Sam Lee is going to be adding parent seminars during his tournaments to help educate them about the ins-and-outs of the recruiting game. Brandon Clay is interested in collaborating with the WBCA, and Christine Lai is looking to develop a post-event survey to support dialogue with her participating coaches and improve her practice. Bill McDonough would be willing to talk with coaches and be part of discussion council nominating (in absentia) Cathy Rush, a National AAU event organizer, a member of the NCAA certification process, Mike T. White, Mike Flynn, Boo Williams, the people who run the Masters…. “But, he said, “they never would talk to me because we’re all lumped in the same category as ‘those guys.'”

I know enough to understand that the river of politics swirling around this topic of summer basketball events – both personal and professional – is deep, wide, and maybe impossible to cross. But if we know there’s another stakeholder who’s willing and able to join, shouldn’t we invite them to sit at the table?

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